Thursday, March 21, 2019

Enrichment Week Story, Day 2 - HISTORICAL FICTION

      On the second day of my Enrichment Week creative writing seminar, I challenged the students to come up with a short piece of historical fiction.  As always, I didn't ask them to write something I didn't do myself, and I thrashed out this little piece, based on a well-known battle in English history.  So step back with me now to a summer day in the Year of Our Lord 1485, which turned out to be a memorable day in the life of a poor Welsh blacksmith . . . .


By Lewis Smith


          Gwyned Olfur was a Welsh blacksmith of uncertain parentage; he had been found by a priest on the local cathedral door as a squalling infant.  Jymm Olfur, the local smith, had lost his infant son to crib fever a few days before, and he and his wife had offered to take the foundling in.  Gwyned had learned to work the bellows almost as soon as he could walk, and by age eight he was wielding a hammer.  At fourteen he took over most of Jymm’s business, since his adoptive father was growing gnarled with arthritis at the ripe old age of forty-two.  Gwyned was nineteen when old Jymm breathed his last; his adoptive mother Nell had perished when he was still a lad, so he was now a skilled blacksmith in a kingdom torn by war.  With nothing tying him to the small town of Padding-on-the Rhys where he had lived his whole life, Gwyned decided to seek greener pastures – or at least, a more wealthy clientele – elsewhere.

          The Wars of the Roses, as the deadly dynastic struggle between the Yorks and the Lancasters would be called by historians, was in its twentieth year when Gwyned settled in the village of Leicester. The local blacksmith had died during an outbreak of typhus the previous year, along with his two apprentices, and the town was sore in need of an experienced metal worker.  Gwyned settled in quite comfortably, and married a local girl named Jilly the following year.  As King Edward seized control of the throne and old Henry VI finally met his end – smothered in his bed by the three brothers of York, according to rumor – Gwyned and Jilly welcomed the birth of a healthy son.  The blacksmith named the boy Jymm, after his father.  The boy turned six years old in the same year that King Edward suddenly fell ill and died, leaving the throne to the two young princes born him by his commoner wife, Elizabeth Woodville.

          Not long after, Richard, the Duke of York, usurped the throne, and the little princes disappeared without a trace.  Gwyned heard the gossip at the local tavern, but paid little attention to it.  Kings and great nobles came and went; they fought their wars and lived or died, but unless the conflict came rolling over the town where Gwyned lived, they mattered not to him.  He kept his head down figuratively and literally, smithing everything from plowshares to horseshoes to halberds and pikes, according to the demands of his customers.

When Henry Tudor led his army across the English Channel a couple of years later to challenge Richard, Gwyned took notice of current events at last, only because they affected his business.  The Earl of Leicester was a faithful liegeman to King Richard, and Gwyned found himself busily forging battle axes, halberds, and pikes for several weeks.  The insurgent forces drew closer to town, and word spread like wildfire that King Richard himself would be coming to Leicester on his way to crush the rebellion once and for all.

Even stolid old Gwyned found himself a bit excited at the prospect of seeing the king in person.  He’d caught a glimpse of the Earl a time or two, riding by on his way to go hawking in the marshes, but an actual king was a whole different level of nobility.  So when he heard the shouts of the crowd gathering in the streets, he set his hammer down and doffed his heavy leather apron and went out to join them.

Richard came riding up at the head of a long procession of fifty knights and several hundred men-at-arms.  Gwyned had heard whispers that the king was a hunchback, but as the monarch rode by, he saw no evidence of it.  He supposed the heavy cloak Richard wore might conceal a minor deformity, but of a certainty the king was no monster.  He had black hair, worn just above his shoulders in an even cut, and his features were regular – pointed, aquiline nose, thin lips parted in a slight smile, and large, light brown eyes.  Richard acknowledged the cheers of the crowd with a gentle wave, and then he and his knights rode on up to White Boar Inn, while the regular soldiers made camp in the field outside of town.  Gwyned watched as the crowd dispersed, and then returned to his shop, donned his apron, and returned to his forge.

Technically, he was a blacksmith and not a weaponsmith, but his father had taught him how to forge and sharpen blades, and the demand was so high right now the castle’s armorer did not resent the competition.  Gwyned was now making his fourth halberd of the day, heating the blade till it glowed red, and then hammering it flatter and wider to make the flared edge of the weapon.  He enjoyed the rhythm of his work; hammering, honing, cooling, and heating again. So intent was he on the job that he did not notice the figure standing in the door of his shop.

“You are the one called Gwyned?” a soft voice asked.

“So I be,” he grumbled.  “What of it?”  Then he turned and saw King Richard standing in the doorway.  The blacksmith’s ruddy face turned pale, and he dropped to one knee in reverence.

“Begging your pardon, yer Majesty,” he said.  “I dinna know it was you.  Gwyned Olfur, blacksmith of Leicester, at yer humble service.”

“Captain Flewellin told me that you are as skilled with weapons and armor as you are with plows and shovels,” the King said.  “I have a job for you.”

“It will be my honor to serve ye as me humble skills allow,” Gwyned said, his heart leaping with excitement.  Completing a smithing job for the King would give him a reputation that no other smith in the district enjoyed.  “What shall I be smithing for ye?”

“The grip on my shield is broken,” King Richard said.  “We shall be facing hard fighting near Bosworth on the morrow, and I need my shield to be steady in my hand.  Can you repair it?”

He handed over a brightly painted metal shield, and Gwyned turned it over to study the grip, which had been soldered onto the iron band that ran across the center of the shield’s interior.

“Soldering is difficult work, sire, and it takes time for the metal to set and harden.  I can re-attach this, to be sure, but if you are to be fighting in the morning you might be better off with another shield.  I can’t guarantee the strength of the bond when it’s had less than a day to set,” he explained.

“This shield has brought me luck in every battle,” Richard said.  “It bears my personal coat of arms, and has spared me many a hard blow.  Will you do your best to repair it?”

Gwyned looked at the grip, which was worn smooth from use, and at the broken joint where it had been affixed to the shield.

“I’ll do what I can, an it please yer Majesty,” he said.

“Good man!” King Richard clapped him on the shoulder.  “I shall send my squire to fetch it after nightfall.”

Gwyned hated soldering; it was one of the trickiest aspects of his craft, and especially on a large piece like the grip.  At least, he thought, one side of the grip was still firmly attached; he wouldn’t have to hold the other end in place.  He pulled a ceramic blow pipe down from the shelf, and got a small bar of bronze that was seated next to it.  He inserted the T-joint of the pipe into the hottest part of the fire, and then wrapped a sheepskin hose around the far end, wetting it and tying it with leather thongs.  He cut an appropriate sized piece from the bronze bar and held it at the end of an iron rod, then began vigorously blowing through the hose. The flow of air pulled flames from the red-hot coal and shot them out the narrow end of the hose.  Gwyned blew and sucked in air and blew some more, until finally the bronze bar began to glow red hot.  He used the iron rod to place it at the broken joint on the back of the shield, and then blew more flames onto it until the iron itself began to soften.  Then he took a small tap hammer and wedge and shaped the solder into the joint as best he could, although mixing two metals and getting them to bond was always difficult.  He blew and hammered and shaped the joint with the rod, until finally he was satisfied with his work.  He still had no idea if the solder would hold or not, but it was the best he could do.

The repair was barely complete when a tall, anxious young squire appeared to collect the shield.

“The metal’s barely cooled,” Gwyned said.  “The less it’s handled before tomorrow, the better.”

“I shall inform His Majesty,” the squire said.

The next time that Gwyned saw King Richard, the usurper was being carried into town dead.  He had been stripped of his weapons, armor, and most of his clothing, and a gaping hole in the back of his head was dripping blood and grey matter onto the cobblestone streets.  His body had been pierced through in several places, and his hands were tied together.  Word was already spreading like wildfire that Henry Tudor had proclaimed himself as King Henry VII on the battlefield.

“Wonder what happened?” one of the townspeople said.

“His shield broke in his hand,” one of the soldiers said, “and that’s when the first blow hit home.  After that, he never stood a chance.”

“Shouldn’t have rushed me work,” Gwyned grunted, and returned to his forge.

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